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Newspaper Tigers 

N.Y. Times and L.A. Times continue to wage war while Big Media gets away with murder

Thursday, Aug 12 2004
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The war began with a pre-emptive strike at the enemy. It wasn’t long before the first attackers quickly snatched the upper hand. But then the other side fought back fiercely, if not necessarily effectively. There were frontline battles, some skirmishes and sniper fire, even outright kidnappings. Now battle-weary troops need to be bolstered.

No, this isn’t a status report about Iraq. It’s the latest twists and turns in the Great Hollywood Newspaper War (or GHNW, as it will be known in these pages from now on).

The New York Times is mulling yet more hires to expand its global infotainment coverage in that increasingly ridiculous mano a mano battle for show-biz dominance with the Los Angeles Times. L.A. Weekly has learned that the Gray Lady may add two high-profile jobs: another Big Media beat reporter and another Hollywood correspondent.

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First the positions have to be funded. But there seems to be no reason they won’t be because, suddenly, money is no object. Which should come as a surprise to no-longer-patient NYT shareholders, who are watching the stock price sink like a stone to near-9/11 lows, and to no-longer-coddled NYT reporters, whom management harangues with increasingly threatening e-mails about late expense reports (including the most dire consequence: that past-deadline expenses won’t be paid at all).

If indeed all-out war requires all-out commitment — that is, unless you’re Rummy and Cheney and Shrubby trying to club Iraq into submission on the cheap — this represents an abrupt about-face for the newspaper of record. The NYT used to follow the personnel philosophy of “Do More With Less.” Now it’s rapidly coming around to the LAT’s way of staffing, which is “Do Less With More.” (C’mon, how often have we wondered what those hordes on Spring Street do all day? It only seems like Susan King is putting out the Calendar section single-handedly, especially when compared to the infrequent occurrence of Rachel Abramowitz’s byline or the rarity of Robert Weklos’.)

Specifically, the two NYT gigs, if approved, would give the Business section’s Geraldine Fabrikant a Tweedledum on the Big Media beat, and Culture’s Sharon Waxman a Tweedledee on the Hollywood circuit. While Business wants a seasoned veteran, Culture may use the slot to groom an up-and-coming talent. Meanwhile, the NYT is looking for a TV editor and a TV-beat replacement for retiring Bernie Weinraub.

Still, beneath the vaingloriousness of any caged match between media rivals lies the reality of their motives for fighting in the first place. And so the question has to be asked: Isn’t pouring all this money and militia into something as ultimately silly as show-biz coverage demeaning to both papers when there’s real news not being covered?

They do it because it’s in their self-interest, not the public’s interest. Newspapers like the NYT and LAT are desperate for young eyeballs, and entertainment crap attracts them like sharks to chum. It also lures the affluent, as evidenced by recent demo info showing Us Weekly had richer readers than far more glamorous glossies. Then there’s sheer greed, since all those supersized two-page film ads placed for ego feeding in the prestige papers generate big bucks, which in turn encourage more movie coverage.

Okay, in the real world, you take profits where you can get them, especially in this weak economy. But, really, you’d think the NYT and LAT with this mo’ money and manpower would try not just to widen and deepen its infotainment coverage (which still consists too frequently of ad nauseam apologies by failing suits, or suck-up sit-downs with preening and profligate talent) but do something new. At least put someone on the trail of Big Media conflicts of interest, which grow worse by the hour.

Everybody complains about Fox — but who dares to tell how NBC news programs are selling the public on the war in Iraq in its network and cable stations because parent company General Electric is expected to have up to $3 billion in contracts in that country by 2006? And how NBC news programs are selling the public on the war on terrorism because G.E. is an industry leader in developing advanced technologies to meet the world’s increasing security needs. And how NBC news programs are also selling the public on the re-election of GWB since the Bush administration’s warmongering and scarifying have been good for G.E.’s bottom line.

It’s not just the 24/7 bashing of Kerry in unison by MSNBC hosts that’s so unethical. It’s that clapping wildly behind the prez on Tuesday inside the Pensacola Civic Center, where Bush spoke to supporters, was none other than current MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough. That’s allowed by the network, yet NBC recently refused to give political documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald a one-minute clip of W’s inarticulate interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

You may recall that moment where our commander in chief tried to defend his decision to attack Iraq, but lapsed into incoherence. NBC refused to give up the clip to Greenwald, explaining to his agent that it’s “not very flattering to the president” and that the network wished to remain “neutral.” (Relying on the fair-use doctrine, Greenwald included the clip anyway in the upcoming theatrical release of his documentary, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, even though it exposes the film to a potential copyright-infringement lawsuit.)

That same phony baloney about nonpartisanship was given by the Walt Disney Co. to explain its boneheaded decision not to distribute Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 ($113 mil in box office and still climbing, as compared to flops like The Alamo, Hidalgo, Around the World in 80 Days and King Arthur the studio did release). Yet Eisner’s company enjoys a wealth of perks from Bush and bro’, from Homeland Security’s March 2003 granting of a no-fly zone over Disney World, to tax breaks for its theme parks and hotels in Florida, where Br’er Jeb just happens to be governor.

In any case, after this month’s vacation cease-fire, the NYT-LAT battling begins intensifying when the troop movements are in place. To recap, movie editor Michael Cieply defected from the LAT to the NYT, as did film critic Manohla Dargis, music business writer Jeff Leeds and architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff.

To counter, the LAT made TV critic Carina Chocano into Dargis Lite while Calendar columnist Paul Brownfield became Mr. Chocano. Then, Spring Street added Maria Russo from the New York Observer and Amy Wallace from Los Angeles magazine to estrogen up its editing staff. But did Wallace jump too soon? After all, she coulda been a contendah for the NYT’s second Hollywood gig. Instead, she sounds like journalism’s version of Xena: The Warrior Princess with eye-rolling pronouncements guaranteed to endear her to the bosses: “The L.A. Times is going to be at war with the N.Y. Times over entertainment coverage,” she told the Weekly recently. “And you know what? We’re going to win!”

All well and good, but if an army marches on its stomach, as Napoleon’s said, then we contend newsroom soldiers need at least a computer. On Tuesday, an amusing little NYT memo announcing not just the literal but the physical reorganization of the Culture section reminded the staff of the “downside” of all this hiring: not enough desks.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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